Advocates say Bay Area set precedent in Florida for tackling sex trafficking

Hillsborough County

Anti-human trafficking advocates credit a shift in approach and attitudes toward sex work in the Tampa Bay area for setting a statewide precedent that may have contributed to a major sex bust in Jupiter on Friday. 

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with solicitation of a prostitute after he was caught paying for sex at an illicit massage parlor, according to Palm Beach County authorities. 

The state of Florida ranks third in the nation for the number of human trafficking cases. The Bay Area generally ranks in the top three of the state’s metropolitan areas. 

Stephanie Costlo with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, an organization headquartered in Tampa, hopes the high-profile nature of Friday’s sex sting forces people to take notice about the realities of sex trafficking in America. 

“It’s almost like there’s a silver lining that there’s a big name attached,” Costlo explained. “Because the rest of the country really needs to pay attention to the fact that people are out there buying sex from trafficked victims every single day.” 

Costlo says a key component to tackling sex trafficking is shifting the focus from the exploited to the exploiters. Traditionally, she says law enforcement would go after prostitutes and sex workers working in illegal massage businesses because they made for easy targets and arrests. 

Tampa was no exception. In 2017, Tampa saw “tons” of sex workers arrested, according to D.C.-based anti-trafficking advocate Rochelle Keyhan. 

“It was just this revolving door of arrests,” Keyhan said. “With no discussions of the people behind the scenes controlling the networks.

An 8 On Your Side investigation in 2017 revealed nearly a dozen Tampa “health spas,” licensed by the state, essentially operating as brothels. 

Backlash led to the city passing its “bathhouse ordinance” in 2018. The ordinance forces spas to close at 10 p.m., requires owners, staff, and customes to register with the city, and enables the city to conduct inspections. 

Hillsborough County passed its own version of the measure not long after. 

Keyhan believes Tampa and Hillborough’s shift in regulation and mentality set a precedent for the entire state that may have contributed to Friday’s spa bust in South Florida. 

“When those ordinances passed and they started to take a stand against that type of trafficking, it really set an example for the state of Florida,” she said. 

Advocates like Keyhan and Costlo say shifting the legal and regulatory focus away from sex workers and aiming it at the businesses and those runing them isn’t just more humane toward the trafficking victims, but it’s a more effective way to eradicate the problem. A prostitute can easily be replaced, they explain, unless you take down whoever is orchestrating the crime ring. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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